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Physical Effects of Drug Use

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Some drugs, including cocaine and alcohol, inflict direct damage to the tissues in your body. Others cause a less obvious type of damage, depending how long you’ve used them and the delivery method you are using.

Much of the harm drug use causes to your eyes, ears, nose, throat, teeth, and skin can be reversed when you stop using drugs. Some changes to your brain, heart, lungs and liver may be more serious, and some can shorten your life.

Physical Effects of Drug Use

What Substance Use Can Do to Your Eyes

Your eyes are delicate structures that work as a complex interplay between blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and glands. When one piece of this chain breaks down, the health of the entire eye is at risk. Researchers say these drugs are associated with eye damage:

  • Alcohol – Heavy drinkers have a higher risk for macular degeneration and cataracts. Some also develop involuntary eye movements.
  • Marijuana – This drug can impact your ability to track items with your eyes as the items move across your field of vision. You may also have trouble discriminating between colors, and you may be sensitive to the sun. With long-term use, those problems could be permanent.
  • Cocaine – Cocaine is toxic to the cornea, and it can cause ulcers. That can happen if you smoke or snort the drug. It can also change blood vessel structures in the eye and lead to inflammation or bleeding. Those can cause permanent vision loss.
  • Heroin – This drug can cause inflammation in the eye. If you inject it, you can also push germs into your body that affect your eyes.
  • Methamphetamine – Meth can spike your blood pressure, which can damage your eyes. That could persist even when you get sober. Meth can also cause corneal ulcers, especially if you snort or smoke the drug.

The Effects of Drugs on Your Nose

Snorting drugs can damage your nose. Anything sold as a powder can be snorted, and some people crush pills to snort them. Snorting delivers a drug very quickly into your bloodstream. Some drugs cause toxicity when they hit your nose, and the fillers that are cut into street drugs can do even more damage.

Cocaine, Ritalin, and methamphetamine can harm nasal tissue by shrinking blood vessels. When these substances are used repeatedly, your nasal passages are starved of both oxygen and nutrition. As cells die, your nose can collapse. You might need surgery to fix the problem. Researchers say snorting anything, no matter what drug type, can lead to:

  • Nasal lining inflammation
  • Respiratory tract blockage
  • Lung infection

When your airways are scarred, you might have long-term problems. Surgery may help, but your breathing might be compromised for the rest of your life.

What Drugs Can Do to Your Throat

Some substances may harm your throat. You might feel a burning sensation when you swallow them, or you might feel a tickle in your throat after a binge. Damage to the throat may be subtle, so you may not notice the problem until it’s advanced.

Alcohol abuse is commonly associated with throat problems. It can burn when it’s swallowed. Each sip leaves a bit of damage behind. While your body may work hard to repair the issue, you may drink at a rate your body can’t keep up with. Your esophagus can tear, or you might develop head and neck cancers. Researchers say some drugs loosen muscles at the bottom of your throat. That can allow stomach acids to seep in, and when they do, you can develop heartburn or acid reflux. Chronic acid reflux can lead to esophageal cancer.

What Substance Abuse Does to Your Teeth

You might know that smoking can darken the white enamel covering of your teeth, but other drugs can cause serious dental problems too, and they can persist whether you smoke the substance or use another method. Experts say these common drugs are associated with tooth damage:

  • Cocaine contains substances that can erode teeth. Cocaine users can also develop mouth sores that eat away the jaw bone.
  • Ecstasy reduces saliva levels, which leads to bacterial growth. Users may grind their teeth, which wears down protective enamel.
  • Heroin users can develop oral diseases caused by viral infections and fungus. People who abuse this drug also tend to grind their teeth together.
  • Marijuana can lead to severe dry mouth, where bacteria colonies thrive. Smoking marijuana can lead to oral cancer.
  • Methamphetamine can lead to rapid tooth rotting, as it’s made of very acidic ingredients. Meth users grind their teeth together, which leads to even more problems. Meth can also reduce saliva production, which lets bacteria colonies run rampant.

Some forms of tooth damage can be repaired with the help of a dentist. But very worn or harmed teeth may need to be pulled and replaced with synthetic versions.

How Drugs Affect Your Skin

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it can suffer due to ongoing drug abuse. That’s especially true if you use a needle to inject drugs. But some forms of skin damage don’t require a needle at all.

People who inject drugs can develop these issues:

  • Track marks – These are caused by repeated needle punctures to deliver drugs.
  • Collapsed veins – Inject too often, and veins can deflate. You’ll see them as darkened stripes under your skin.
  • Ulcers – If your needle pushes germs beneath your skin, you can develop open sores.

Some types of drugs, including methamphetamine, can compel you to pick at your skin. You can pull open sores on your skin very quickly, and you may not even notice it’s happening. Researchers say that long-term drinkers can develop yellow skin, brown skin, or spider veins. They may also have flushed skin and an enhanced risk of diseases like psoriasis.

Your skin heals very quickly, and with the help of an expert, you could get relief from some of these problems. Infections, for example, can be treated with antibiotics, but you may be left with scars because of the damage done.

Drug Abuse and Your Heart

All drugs—including tobacco—can damage your heart. Negative effects of drug use include:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Rapid heart rate

Drug use can increase your risk of heart attack and cause damage to the valves of your heart. Both drugs found in nature—such as marijuanapeyote, and cocaine—and synthetic drugs—like LSD, ketamine, and MDMA—can damage the cardiovascular system.

Why Your Stomach Hurts

When You Use Drugs The use of certain substances can irritate the digestive system. In many cases, drug use can lead to nausea and vomiting. Prolonged use of marijuana may cause cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a condition characterized by recurrent episodes of severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration. Cocaine and opioid use can also cause stomach issues, including abdominal pain and severe constipation. The use of steroids can cause stomach pain, and this might indicate inflammation of the liver or liver damage.

Substance Abuse and Weight

Drug and alcohol use can also cause weight loss and weight gain. Alcohol is very caloric and can add extra pounds when drinking to excess regularly. On the other hand, alcohol can damage the intestines and other organs, leading to stomach issues, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine may suppress the appetite, causing weight loss. Heroin and opioids can damage the organs, leading to weight loss as well. Fluctuations in weight can lead to a number of health issues.

What Drugs Do to Your Brain

Drug use, misuse, and abuse can cause both temporary and permanent damage to your brain. In fact, drug addiction is a type of brain damage, in which the reward system of the brain is re-wired to respond to the substance, to the exclusion of other pleasure-inducing stimuli (like sex or food). In addition to addiction, damage to your brain and central nervous system can include:

  • Mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia
  • Memory loss
  • Increased risk of stroke

Studies have shown that the prolonged use of methamphetamine can cause protein loss and cell death, a condition remarkably similar to traumatic brain injury.

Is It Time to Seek Help?

If your health is suffering because of drug use, it might be time to seek addiction treatment. Signs you need addiction treatment include:

  • You’ve tried to cut back, but you can’t make it stick.
  • Your family and friends express concern about your drug use.
  • You use drugs and alcohol even when you don’t want to.
  • You’ve been arrested, lost your license, or faced some other consequence due to substance abuse.
  • You feel unable to function without your preferred substance.

It’s important to choose a treatment program with a holistic approach, which addresses both the mental and physical effects of substance abuse. At Footprints to Recovery, our nurse practitioners make sure your medical needs are being met too, especially if you’ve neglected those needs for some time. We will refer you to dentists, neurologists, gastrointestinal doctors, and others whenever we’ve accessed that there’s a need. Addiction is a disease, but it’s a treatable one. Contact Footprints to Recovery for a free, confidential phone consultation. We can help you reclaim your life.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

Medically Reviewed by Lindsay Hutchison, MS, LPC, LCADC
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